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50 Years Later: What We Can Take From ‘Valley of the Dolls’

‘Valley of the Dolls’ may be reduced to “trashiness,” but we’d be denying its skill and sensitivity – and perhaps the value of trash.

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Based on the novel by Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls has been alternately denigrated or upheld as a cult classic. Criticized broadly for being trashy, ridiculous, and clichéd, Roger Ebert called it a “dirty soap opera,” while Bosley Crowther described it as “mawkish.” Meanwhile, this became its appeal: a film that’s “so bad it’s good,” one which was adored for its camp quality.

Released in 1967 and following the trajectories of three women as they navigate the entertainment industry, it would be too easy to celebrate Valley of the Dolls for what it means to our current situation, eschewing the mess of its renowned artlessness. While the film does say a lot about the art world of then and now, it is a work which, beyond its social meaning, has endless, glorious merits: watching it makes claims of its substandard quality seem delusional.

The film is a raging melodrama that focuses on small-town Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins), talented singer Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), and pretty actress Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). Introduced in similar circumstances — the start of their careers — their lives intermingle as each struggles to survive. Anne moves to New York to become a secretary, is scouted as a model, and starts a relationship with Lyon Burke, the lawyer she was working for. Despite her success, she is unfulfilled when Lyon cannot commit to her, turning to pills to cope. Neely begins by being fired from a small role in a Broadway show when fading star Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward) feels Neely will overshadow her. Rising regardless after a television performance, Neely’s Hollywood career is marred by her dependence on drugs prescribed to help her work, lose weight, and sleep, as she spirals through addiction. Jennifer, meanwhile, is objectified by coworkers and marries a nightclub singer, leaving show-business until forced to return when her husband, sick and unable to work, can no longer provide for them. She performs in French art films — really, softcore pornography — before developing breast cancer. Receiving a mastectomy, and aware that her body was the only thing appreciated about her, she takes her own life by overdosing on pills.

The women are ultimately connected only tangentially; presented as friends, and at some points enemies, they seem to rarely interact, while the biggest connection is the drugs they all come to depend on. Watching Valley of the Dolls makes one hungry for friendship, for support. Seeing these women suffer at the hands of men and the institutions they run is hard enough without seeing them attack each other. But the film is sympathetic. We watch as these women are tortured, but that torture is realistic. While the film heightens it for drama and throws it together into a tight narrative, it holds a truth which is only amplified by its emotional excess, and in the collective trauma we witness, we understand the aggression these women enact upon each other.

When Neely humiliates Helen, or when Helen humiliates Neely, we are struck by the cruelty, but also by the complete, fatal hold Hollywood has upon women. The terror felt by a woman who is rendered more undesirable with every passing year or every pound gained, and the constant awareness of how precarious her appeal is regardless of her talent, makes us understand why these women act viciously. It is not for bloodlust, but to barely survive in an industry that seems to hate them.

When on the personal plane Anne and Neely fight over their romantic relationships (and Lyon’s affections), we are aware of the conspicuous absence of the man who is inciting this anger, and who seems least emotionally impacted by the situation. Unfazed because he ultimately does not care and is not bound by the strict social mores and gender roles which denigrate these women, Lyon, blissfully ignorant, leaves turmoil in his wake. Jennifer comes out of the film more pure; her anger is directed inward. She does not lash out, but submits. In order to help her increasingly unpopular husband, she practically grovels for her friends to give him jobs, and when he is too ill to work, she accepts the “art film” roles she hates, receiving only harassment, insinuation, and insults for her labour.

We can judge these characters as drama queens, bitches, or spineless, but Valley of the Dolls, while intent on its own hyper-drama, is equally intent on its nuanced conception of characters who have the ability to do bad things (to themselves and others), but out of the circumstances each is in, circumstances which are namely patriarchal. When Neely lashes out at her friends and colleagues, we are not made to ignore the pain she causes, but we are likewise never to forget that her drug-induced rages are the result of the Hollywood system pumping her full of pills, especially to keep her weight down. And when we watch Neely’s workout montage, we watch as the film breaks her apart, fragmenting her body as if foreshadowing the rupture of herself.

Today, watching Valley of the Dolls feels depressing. Have things changed, or perhaps gotten worse? Regardless, while we can use the film to discuss the current climate, it deserve a space of its own. What it reveals about the 1960s film industry (drawing on earlier Classic Hollywood for inspiration) is a deep and scathing exposé of a series of systems, from fashion to Hollywood to Broadway to those untouchable European arthouse films, and even to the home, and how they trap and control women, killing them slowly.

Mixing together every corner of the entertainment industry’s most glamorous women, with perfectly overwrought performances and a constant tonal high, it could be said that Valley of the Dolls is “too much;” it could equally be said that it’s a calculated melding of entertainment and dramatics that uses an emotional intensity to reflect the severity of the issues it covers. In its melodrama, Valley of the Dolls may be reduced to “trashiness,” but we’d be denying its skill and sensitivity, and perhaps the value of trash. It’s not “so bad it’s good;” it’s just good in a different way. We could call it a “dirty soap opera” — but that is a great compliment.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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